“Talent can’t be measured by the length of the skirt.”
She’s only 15, but Stephanie Kurlow looks well on her way to achieving her life’s goal – becoming the world’s first hijabi ballerina.
The Sydney-based dancer, who has Russian and Australian heritage, received a scholarship last year to help her train, and practices for tens of hours every week.
“I love how challenging ballet is; you are constantly striving for perfection,” she tells EmiratesWoman.com.
“I also have fallen in love with the feeling I have when I dance, it’s as if the whole world disappears.”
However the teen, who took her first ballet class at the age of 2, admits it hasn’t been an easy road to making her dreams come true.
After converting to Islam in 2010, Kurlow stopped dancing after struggling to find a school that catered for Muslim women.
She had all but given up on her life’s ambition, but decided to take the leap after being inspired by ground-breaking athletes such as African-American ballerina Misty Copeland, and the first hijabi Emirati weightlifter, Amna Al Haddad.
Kurlow set up a crowdfunding page to help her afford private tuition, the success of which attracted a scholarship from sports brand Björn Borg.
Now, a year on, the dancer has herself inspired fellow girls to follow their dreams too.
“I have received some negativity from Islamophobic people but the ballet and Muslim community have been very supportive,” she says.
“Some girls feel more confident now to wear hijab in their everyday life, saying they aren’t so afraid to wear it in public because of my story.
“They don’t need to compromise their beliefs and their values just because of the current climate in the world.”
In fact, Kurlow doesn’t understand why there’s been any negative response to her traditional dress, as ballet has leant towards more covered-up costumes in the past.
“Some people are telling me that I don’t belong in the ballet world, that I can not express art while I am covered,” the teen says, arguing that ballerinas traditionally wore long skirts and dresses in the 17th and 18th centuries.
“Ballet was so modest in those times… the talent and technique can’t be measured by the length of the skirt or hijab.
“My hijab is my expression of love to my creator and I believe it covers my body but not my mind, heart and talent.”
Indeed, you don’t “need to be wearing minimal clothes to pursue an art form”, says Kurlow.
“Art forms are always evolving and I think introducing ballerinas who are diverse is just creating a more beautiful world.”
And the dance world seems to be agreeing, with Kurlow revealing “the traditional image of a ballerina is slowly changing”, though she admits there is still a long way to go.
“Being the first Muslim hijabi ballerina is quite challenging because the world hasn’t seen it yet,” she says.
“I really look forward to a time where wearing a hijab isn’t front page news, because having different beliefs or clothes shouldn’t be a deciding factor as to whether you pursue your dreams or not.”
Getting back to ballet after her three-year break has been tricky, with the dancer admitting she has had to work on regaining her strength and flexibility.
But “any dream can be achieved through perseverance and hard work”, Kurlow says, adding that “if you love something you can achieve anything”.
Kurlow’s next goal is to win a place at a pre-professional ballet school before touring the world with a dance company.
“Once I am a professional I would also like to open my own ballet company and performing arts school that caters towards people of different religions, races or backgrounds.”
Wherever the path leads, the teen hopes to bring people together through her work, urging young girls to not to fear being unique.
“We need to realise that being different is something you should be proud of and embrace,” she says.
“I want to inspire people to be yourself and be proud of your identity… reach for the stars, but never compromise your values, religion or beliefs.
“If you work hard, all your dreams are possible.”
Images: Stephanie Kurlow/Instagram, Getty